Modernizing the City: Conflict and Potential of Monument and City Planning (1990-2000)

The conflict between preservation of heritage and development of a modern city has always been a dilemma for the government and related stakeholders. This also applies to the city of Ulaanbaatar. With accumulated years of nomadic and Buddhist history and precious physical and non-physical heritage, she also needed to face the issue when it came to city planning.

Mongolian’s belief in Buddhism was sincere and was established since long before. Hence, temples and monasteries were important artifacts that Mongolian uphold and visit frequently. However, with the emergence of modernization and influence of other political regime in the 20th Century, this tradition has changed. During the communist regime when the Soviet Union had the power to highly influence her satellite cites, Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and worshipping has been restricted in the 1930s. Among all the historical temples and monasteries, only one was fortunately able to escape the destruction – Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Located at the center of Ulaanbaatar, the Chinese style Tibetan Buddhist Monastery housed monks and travellers. It is a wooden rectangular temple of golden roof with wooden planks surrounding it. There are also three connecting gers serving as lobbies and a small brick and wood temple of two-story serving as reading room. (Sainbileg, 2002)

Plan and sections of Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Source from “Gandan” Housing Block in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)
Plan and sections of Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Source from “Gandan” Housing Block in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)

With the influx of population into Ulaanbaatar in the 20th century, the population in Gandan area has also risen. The modernization, including construction of apartment blocks, commercial buildings began in the area in the 1950s. In addition, people started building houses and gers in the unoccupied space since then. However, all these new buildings were not conformed to the complex of Gandantegchinlen Monastery.
In 1990, the restriction on worshipping was lifted. The monastery, which was once closed, was restored. With the Mongolian government restoring power over own country, city planning was inevitable, including Gandan area. According to Sainbileg,

This architectural plan makes the city interesting that is valuable for city planning. Megzed Janraisag temple (another Buddhist monument) is based in the respected side of this place, visible from every side of micro district’s street.

For city planners, keeping the monastery as historical sigh and further development were their utmost priority.
There was the possibility of developing the area into tourist spot in favor of its location and monumental value. Moreover, as it was not as developed as the city center of Ulaanbaatar, the high rise were not constructed. Hence, protection around the area was possible. However, said with good will, the plan was difficult to achieve due to the current population living in the area as well as it being a privatized area.
Problems were accumulated since before, including the inhabitants, the late restoration and protection towards the monastery, irregular land use, and limited regulations in preservation. It only came under the protection of the state in 1994.
City planning is a long struggle and fight between different stakeholders. On one hand, it has to be flexible in face of unexpected development of the society; on the other hand, it also has to respond to the existing heritages and monuments. Especially for Mongolia, that Buddhism was their major belief since long. The question of how modernization, city planning and Buddhism could cope with each other was still an issue not solved.

Because the 1990s promises to be the decade of revival for both Buddhism and democracy in Mongolia, it remains to be seen just how compatible the two will be. (Juergensmeyer, 1994)

1. Sainbileg, Sergelen. ““Gandan” Housing Block in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Cultural Heritage and Urban Development.” 2002. Accessed December 15, 2016. Egel.
2. Juergensmeyer, Mark. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. California: University of California Press.

1 Comment on “Modernizing the City: Conflict and Potential of Monument and City Planning (1990-2000)

  1. It has always been a dilemma in modern urban planning since industrialization between new construction and historical preservation. Apart from the illegal occupation posing menace to the monastery, another concern from a urbanistic perspective is the isolation of historical artifacts. It was a common approach in organization to develop a new commercial center separated from existing context for more developable space, and as time goes, the neighborhood surrounding artifacts would no longer keep up with the urban development and eventually die out.

    As the article mentions the monastery was not as developed as the city center of Ulaanbaatar, the isolation effect may also be a constructive direction to investigate the dilemma in historical building preservation.

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